Defense chief says US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq

Defense chief says US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq
© Greg Nash

U.S. troops leaving Syria will be relocated to western Iraq, where they will continue to conduct operations to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperFirst US service member dies from coronavirus Pentagon orders military bases to stop releasing specific COVID-19 numbers Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed MORE said Sunday. 

Esper told reporters traveling with him to the Middle East that details regarding the U.S. military's efforts in western Iraq would be worked out in the upcoming weeks, The Associated Press reported

The comments came after weeks of bipartisan scrutiny of President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE's abrupt decision to pull roughly 1,000 troops from northern Syria ahead of a planned Turkish offensive in the area. Trump has repeatedly argued that it is time to get out of "endless wars" and promised to bring U.S. troops home.

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But Esper said Sunday that many of the U.S. troops leaving Syria will be relocated to Iraq. 

"One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps," he said, adding that the troop withdrawal would take "weeks not days."

"Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now," Esper said.

The Defense chief did not rule out the possibility of U.S. forces conducting counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. He also reportedly said that he'd spoken with his Iraqi counterparts about the move, which will place more than 700 U.S. troops in western Iraq. More than 5,000 American troops are currently stationed in Iraq as part of an agreement between the two nations, the AP reported. 

The forces deployed in northern Syria had been assisting the Kurdish YPG, which leads the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey considers the Kurdish-led forces, which have proved to be the U.S.'s most effective allies in its fight against ISIS, to be a terrorist insurgency. 

Many lawmakers and former Pentagon officials, including Trump's former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisIs coronavirus the final Trump crisis? Pentagon seeks to reconsider parts of B cloud contract given to Microsoft over Amazon Democrats press FEC pick to recuse himself from Trump matters MORE, have voiced fears that a withdrawal from the region could to lead to a resurgence of ISIS. Reports surfaced last week that hundreds of ISIS supporters escaped from a Kurdish-established detention facility following a Turkish airstrike. 

Vice President Pence announced last Thursday that the United States and Turkey reached a deal to temporarily suspend Ankara's incursion. However, the AP noted that sporadic clashes have continued despite the five-day cease-fire. 

Esper acknowledged those reports but said that the cease-fire "generally seems to be holding."